4 Unusual Sessions to Boost Your FTP

Pro cyclist Michal Kwiatkowski is led by his teammate, while riding the Tour de France and wearing yellow mask helmets, oakley sunglasses in white, a white Team Sky Jersey and black bib shorts.
Photo by Tom Sam on Unsplash

Since the invention of the functional threshold power (FTP), ambitious cyclists run after improving their FTP. As a coach and athlete I can understand the persistent hype. I mean, your FTP constitutes your highest rate of aerobic metabolism. Studies have shown that Critical Power (slightly higher than FTP) highly correlates with the aerobic machinery, the type 1 muscle fibers, and even more with their supporting structure, the muscle capillaries. 

As we know today, the best endurance athletes in the world possess a huge amount of type 1 fibers filled with mitochondria. No surprise that we all aim toward a higher FTP. 

Sadly, even today many athletes think you only see your FTP climb if you bang away 2×15, 3×15 or 2×20 minute intervals on repeat. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, there’s not a one-way ticket to FTP gains. 

Sure threshold intervals mainly improve your threshold but keep in mind that your body doesn’t care about energy systems. As a result, no matter which intensity you target, adaptations will occur across the board. It’s just that some parts of your physiology get primed more or less, depending on the intensity. 

So, as long as you consider total work duration and intensity you’re good to go. To help you out and break through training monotony here are 4 unusual sessions to raise your FTP.

1. Speed Play

Speed play originates from the Scandinavian word Fartlek. Both have the same meaning. As the name suggests you target intensity in an unstructured, playful way. Usually, this session involves heading out at a route and including intensity along the way, on climbs for example. Also, Fartleks are way more common in runners than in cyclists. I have to admit, however, that I have yet to find the runner who does Fartlek runs unstructured. 

Instead, a typical speed play session for a runner, that I’ve implemented recently, is a 1 minute on, 1 minute off workout like 25×1 minute at threshold. All you have to do is warm up for 10-20 minutes and then follow the 1 minute rhythm till 25 times pass. But don’t lose your mind. You don’t need to bombard your lap button. Just press start once and keep the rhythm till 50 minutes pass or use a structured workout on your bike computer. 

It might look insane on Strava at first but you will notice a huge average power compared to a low RPE. For those unaware RPE stands for rating of perceived exertion. Also, I enjoy the session as time passes quickly. 

To sum up, you alternate between one minute at threshold and one minute at your zone 2 endurance pace. Keep in mind, though, that there’s no extra points in going harder. Neglect to go above 105% of your FTP. Studies have shown that you can’t reach your VO2max in a minute, meaning you will only create extra fatigue. Just find yourself a route of 10-60 minutes in length, where you can either turn around or ride along. Obviously this session works great indoors like on Zwift.

The Speed Play Session:

  • Beginner: 20×1 minute 95-105% of FTP, 1 minute 50-60% of FTP
  • Intermediate: 25×1 minute
  • Advanced: 30×1 minute

But you can also use short intervals differently. Let’s talk about that now.

On white background it says "speed play 25x1min threshold" demonstrating a speed play threshold session for cyclists to boost FTP.
A speed play session example
On white background a cycling workout analysis is presented with 30x1 minute threshold intervals by showing the average power, normalized power and the stable heart rate of the cyclist.
Notice the high average power while heart rate doesn’t drift

2. Multiple Short Threshold Intervals

Another session, another one copied from runners. This time from Kenyan long distance runners. Instead of completing long intervals at threshold, Kenyans join the track and run 13x1km at threshold, for example. 1 km takes around 3 minutes to complete. Now, I don’t want you to lose your mind again by remembering your count at 13 efforts but I want to challenge the notion of traditional workouts. 

The uniqueness of short intervals lies in the short break. You only get a minute or two. Proponents of the Norwegian threshold training argue that short intervals combined with a short break cause lower stress on the muscles while enabling a high total work time. I support this idea as 13×3 minutes give you 39 minutes at threshold. 

Once again studies have shown that total duration matters when you aim to improve your FTP. 

So, find yourself a climb you can descend quicker, a long climb, or a road you can turn around and complete something like 10×3 minutes or 6×6 minutes at threshold. Of course, this workout works once again great on Zwift. 

The short threshold intervals:

  • Beginner: 8×3 minutes at 95-100% of FTP, 1 minute 40-50% of FTP
  • Intermediate: 8×4 minutes at 05-100% of FTP, 1-2 minutes at 40-50% of FTP
  • Advanced: 8×6 minutes at 95-100% of FTP, 1-2 minutes at 40-50% of FTP

Lactate, of course, plays a crucial role in all these sessions. Next come a few things you should know…

On white background it says "speed play tt 8x4min threshold + 10min tempo" demonstrating a short threshold interval session for cyclists in blue colour to improve their FTP.
Short threshold intervals with short breaks

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3. Lactate-Shuttle Training

Lactate was a completely misunderstood molecule for a long time. Once thought to be the culprit of acidosis in the muscles, we know better today. Lactate isn’t the enemy, it’s a fuel source instead. 

Simply put, lactate is a byproduct of anaerobic glycolysis, which is the breakdown of sugar to ATP without oxygen. Now, the exciting part is that some organs like our heart and brain and even our type 1 muscle fibers like to use lactate as energy. This whole process of lactate production up to clearance is called the lactate shuttle theory. In short, we have two important transport proteins MCT-4 and MCT-1. MCT-4 on the one hand, transports lactate away from the producing fast twitch fibers. MCT-1 on the other hand, takes lactate inside our type 1 fibers so that mitochondria can metabolize it. 

If you want to dive deeper into the lactate shuttle theory, read my article about it here

It’s obvious though that we want to have more MCT transporters. But how do we achieve that? Well, a hypothesis that drew attention recently are over-under intervals. You simply alternate between a certain period above your lactate threshold, and below it. At first you flood the system with lactate and then force your body to clear it at a higher intensity. Accordingly, you want to see an increase in heart rate followed by a decrease, if done right. 

Check out this over-under session done in a 1:5 work-to-rest ratio:

  • Beginner: 2×12 min at 30 sec 125-140% of FTP, followed by 2.5 min at 80-85% of FTP, recover for 6 minutes between sets
  • Intermediate: 3×12 min same power prescription 
  • Advanced: 3×15 min same power prescription

Until now, all sessions revolved around the threshold. Nevertheless, you don’t need to ride that intensely to see change. The last session illustrates that.

On white background it says "lactate shuttle training 3x12min over/under" demonstrating a over-under session for cyclists to boost their ftp.
Over-Under Intervals with a 1:5 work-to-rest ratio

4. Tempo Efforts 

As you may read out above, you mainly produce lactate in your fast-twitch muscle fibers. So, another goal for us to improve our FTP lies in reducing lactate production and improving clearance at the same time. To do so we need an intensity where fast-twitch fibers already support our work. 

This intensity is at Tempo (zone 3) around 80-85% of your FTP. Why? Because once you cross your LT1, lactate levels rise above baseline due to the recruitment of the addressed fast-twitch fibers. We specifically focus on the type 2a fibers here. 

By repeatedly stressing these fibers over a longer period, we force them to become aerobically efficient and convert into fatigue resistant type 1 fibers. This is a complex process and takes a long time. But as mentioned earlier more type 1 fibers mean better lactate clearance, mean more muscle capillaries, mean a higher threshold. 

Now, these tempo sessions particularly help anaerobically inclined riders like puncheurs or sprinters. As lactate clearance exceeds lactate production at tempo and lactate levels remain stable, this intensity is way more manageable than right at your FTP. Additionally, a study found that fatigue at 80-90% of Critical Torque (Critical Power) occurs four to five times slower than above it. Therefore, tempo is also a very sustainable session. I highly believe in this intensity and its benefits to peripheral adaptations by getting our type 1 and 2a fibers more efficient. 

Since you ride at a lower intensity during tempo, you can either perform intervals or do steady tempo. Here are two examples:

  • Beginner intervals: 4×10 minutes at 80-85% of FTP, 3-5 minutes easy between sets
  • Beginner steady: 40 minutes steady at 80-85% of FTP
  • Intermediate intervals: 4×15 minutes same power prescription, 5-6 minutes easy between sets
  • Intermediate steady: 50-60 minutes at 80-85% of FTP
  • Advanced intervals: 20 min + 6×10 minutes same power prescription, 2-3 minutes easy between sets
  • Advanced steady: 70-90 minutes at 80-85% of FTP
On white background it says "tempo efforts 3x20min" demonstrating a tempo interval session in blue colour for cyclists to boost their FTP.
Repeated Tempo Intervals
A structured workout where it says "steady tempo 40min" demonstrates a steady cycling tempo session in blue colour.
Steady Tempo: Find a course, where you can perform it uninterrupted

Play The Long Game

There’s no shortcut in achieving further adaptations in your FTP. Even getting your FTP from say 200 to 300 can take a long time. However, if you vary your sessions and do the ones above consistently, I’m sure you will see an increase in your FTP or the power output you can maintain over a long time. Just remember there are many ways to improve your FTP.

Your body is a complex yet highly adaptable machinery, you just need to know how to use it. Put your body under different stresses and ultimately it will adapt.

I suggest you do two or occasionally three of those sessions weekly and account for adequate recovery between them. Fuel them with carbs and build in a recovery week from time to time and you will get faster one pedal stroke at a time.

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Studies Used in This Article

  1. Critical power is positively related to skeletal muscle capillarity and type I muscle fibers in endurance-trained individuals
  2. Adaptations to training at the individual anaerobic threshold
  3. Relationships of the anaerobic threshold with the 5 km, 10 km, and 10 mile races
  4. Does Lactate-Guided Threshold Interval Training within a High-Volume Low-Intensity Approach Represent the “Next Step” in the Evolution of Distance Running Training? 
  5. The Training Characteristics of World-Class Distance Runners: An Integration of Scientific Literature and Results-Proven Practice
  6. Cycling efficiency is related to the percentage of type I muscle fibers
  7. Lactate kinetics at the lactate threshold in trained and untrained men
  8. Adaptations to aerobic interval training: interactive effects of exercise intensity and total work duration
  9. Distinct profiles of neuromuscular fatigue during muscle contractions below and above the critical torque in humans
  10. The Validity of Functional Threshold Power and Maximal Oxygen Uptake for Cycling Performance in Moderately Trained Cyclists 

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